James Maxton was born in Pollokshaws, but brought up in Barrhead where his father was a headmaster. He spent three years at Hutcheson's Grammar School before leaving to become a pupil teacher at the Martyrs' School. In 1903 he embarked on both a teacher training course and an Arts course at Glasgow University. By the age of nineteen, thanks to his contacts with Tom Johnston and John Maclean, he had become a socialist and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In 1910 he and others formed the Socialist Teachers' Society and also campaigned within the Educational Institute of Scotland for better conditions for staff.
Like most members of the ILP, Maxton was opposed to the Great War. With the introduction of conscription in 1916 he declared himself a conscientious objector and appeared before a tribunal to argue his case. Within days, however, he was arrested and accused of attempting to cause mutiny and sedition by calling for a strike in support of Clydeside shop stewards who had been deported to Edinburgh for having organised strikes in breach of the Munitions of War Act. He received a sentence of one year in prison and lost his job. On his release he found work in the shipyards. In the 1918 election he stood unsuccessfully in Bridgeton, but in 1922 he was returned triumphantly alongside another other nine ILP candidates. They became the "Red Clydesiders" in Parliament, making frequent scenes to draw attention to social issues, battling against what Maxton called the "hoary tradition" of Westminster.
Although he had been a supporter of Ramsay MacDonald for the leadership of the Labour Party, he became increasingly critical of MacDonald's tactics. Maxton wanted more vigorous state intervention than MacDonald would concede and he grew increasingly at odds with the Labour leadership. In the aftermath of the General Strike of 1926 he and the miners' leader, A. J. Cook, issued a manifesto calling for a much stronger pursuit of class warfare and of the fight against capitalism. As his criticisms of the Labour Government of 1929-31 became fiercer he found himself increasingly isolated. He and some eighteen other ILP members were refused endorsement by the Labour Party in the election of 1931, but Maxton succeeded in retaining his Bridgeton seat. But he had little influence in Parliament for his remaining years and became something of a favourite "character" there. His oratorical skills remained undimmed and he could, from time to time, pack the Commons. Bridgeton voters returned him again in 1945, but years of chain smoking had taken their toll and he died on 23 July 1946.
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